We all want to be the great American novelist. But as we’re slogging through the process that is drafting, revising, getting feedback, and editing, sometimes we just need to sit down and write something new and fresh. Flash fiction, generally defined as fiction less than 1,000 words, can do that for you. Here are five ways writing flash fiction can make you a better writer.
1) With flash fiction, you get something finished (and published!)
Picture this: you’re working on your manuscript. You’re 65,000 words into it, and you’re not sure whether you’re going to make it. You tell someone you’re a writer. “What do you write?” they ask. If you’re me, when people ask you this, all you can think about are the plot holes and the character who is not cooperating with their given directions.
However, when I talk to people about my writing, I can tell them about the novel-length manuscript I’m both pouring my heart into and tearing my hair out over, or I can say, “I wrote this really funny story the other day about a bunch of outdoor diners getting squished by a giant bowling ball.” Because I had an idea one day when I was out walking the dog, and later that week I sat down and wrote a whole story.
The act of finishing something is so gratifying, and it can boost your confidence that you will one day finish your manuscript. Additionally, flash fiction is a comparatively small ask for your critique partners. I’m constantly sending friends stories with fewer than 1,000 words because I know it won’t be a huge drain on their time to review.
The more polished flash fiction you have, the more pieces you can send out for publication. A lot of lit mags, especially newer ones, are steering away from longer pieces because they know everyone is busy and wants a quick, engaging story. Getting something published is also a huge confidence boost – proof that someone wants to read your writing and thinks that other people should too. The more flash you write, the more you can get published, the more you have to talk about with friends and family, and the more confidence you have that you can finish that manuscript.
2) You tighten up your prose.
Some people tumble out of the womb, pick up a pen, and write perfect sentences without any more words than necessary. I’m not one of those people and I doubt you are either (I imagine those people as residing mostly in cabins without internet). It took me several years to come to terms with the fact that I’m wordy, but now I relish going through drafts and cutting words mercilessly. Flash fiction is an excellent way to practice excising unnecessary words and playing with a sentence until you get to a structure with three fewer words (that still makes sense, of course).
Shorter sentences usually make for stronger sentences. Passive voice, for example, takes more words than active. Take “Jane was run over by the car” and put it in active voice – you save a word and get a stronger sentence out of the deal. Once you write a few pieces with strict word counts (that absolutely can be self-imposed, I recommend this for practice), you’ll find yourself going to town on your longer pieces as well.
3) You have to kill your darlings.
I found a lit mag that I thought was a perfect fit for a piece of flash fiction I’d written. I’d pored over every word, tightening up my prose to under 1,000 words, and I was excited to start sending it out. Then I looked at the submission requirements: 800 words or less. I knew that my story was as concise as possible – the only option was to start taking out entire sentences or paragraphs. And so, I had to evaluate every sentence and every section and ask myself: is this strictly necessary to the plot? Is it necessary for what I want my story to convey to readers? There were a couple sentences that I absolutely loved that I thought had beautiful imagery or particularly clever phrasing. But they weren’t necessary for the story I wanted to tell, so into the garbage they went.
It’s good for us as writers to look at our writing objectively, to decide whether a phrase or paragraph or chapter is strictly necessary. It’s easy to get swept up in the details and the scenery when you have 80,000 or even 5,000 words, but when you have the hard stop of a flash fiction word count, it makes you consider every phrase in a new light. Of course, sometimes you decide that everything is imperative, that the story would suffer for cutting anything, and that’s when you know you have a good, tight story. Once I cut my story down to 800 words, I found another lit mag with a requirement of 700 words, and I knew that I couldn’t do it.
(In a stroke of irony, the version of the story that I actually got published was under 500 words. But it was a different story by that point.)
4) You get to the action (or don’t!)
As you’ve gathered by now, flash fiction is a game of choice. The great thing about flash fiction is that you can get away with a lot that readers wouldn’t always accept from a novel or short story because there’s less room for a narrative arc. Personally, I’m a big fan of random snippets of action that leave the reader asking questions about the larger context (flash fiction is great for sci fi for this reason). But if you want to spend 800 words describing an interesting person and then 150 piquing the reader’s interest with what might happen to them, you can! Or you can write a fight scene with only a few clues about the characters’ relationship or the moments preceding the fight. The traditional constraints aren’t there, so have some fun.
5) With flash fiction, you have fun with form
I naturally gravitate towards writing in past tense, third person limited POV – the thought of writing a longer piece in first person or present tense stresses me out. But I was recently working on a flash piece, and a friend read it and suggested putting it in present tense. It already had a sense of urgency, and present tense might serve it well. As soon as I started considering it, I thought, what if it was in second person too?
So, I rewrote the entire thing in second person present tense, and I loved it. The second person point of view gave my story even more urgency, and I quickly realized how many words I could save in present tense. For my longer pieces, I’m still a past tense third person limited kinda gal, but I’ve started experimenting more, and realizing that other formats can be a lot of fun.
So put that manuscript aside for one day, write something short and fun, and see if it doesn’t help get the creative juices flowing.
Marina is a West Coast native living in Washington, DC. She loves writing anything, from sci-fi to creative non-fiction to romance, often drawing inspiration from the frequent travel required by her day job. Her work has appeared in such literary magazines as DistrictLit and Corner Bar Magazine. When she’s not writing, you can find her hosting bar trivia, baking something involving peaches, or bothering her extremely patient dog, Daisy. You can read more of her work at marinabarakatt.com and find pictures of Daisy at twitter.com/marinabarakatt.